George W. Bush's State of the Union address Tuesday night may have been the oddest speech of his presidency, and that's saying a lot. At times he seemed locked in a time warp, as if momentous events of the past few weeks had never taken place. At other times he seemed adrift on some separate astral plane, describing a political landscape that simply doesn't exist in the world the rest of us inhabit.
In foreign affairs, which took up the first half of the address, Bush needed to deal with two big questions: What's our next move in Iraq, and how does Hamas' victory in the Palestinian elections affect the prospects for democracy—or, more to the point, Bush's policy of spreading democracy—across the Middle East and the world?
On Iraq, remarkably, the president said nothing remotely new. He filled in that section of the speech with a cut-and-paste of passages from earlier speeches. The intent, no doubt, was to exude confidence in the present course: Everything's fine ("we are in this fight to win, and we are winning"), so why do anything differently?
But, as often happens when you regurgitate stock phrases, anachronisms intruded. For instance: "We're helping Iraq build an inclusive government." Really? It looks like the Iraqis are pretty much in charge now. We may be trying to persuade the Shiites to bring in more Sunnis in order to marginalize the insurgency, but our leverage is slim, and all signs suggest that the Shiites, who won the election overwhelmingly, will do pretty much as they please.
Another passage along these lines: "We're continuing reconstruction efforts and helping the Iraqi government to fight corruption and build a modern economy, so all Iraqis can experience the benefits of freedom." Well, that was the goal—a worthy goal—but apparently we're no longer pursuing it, unless you define "reconstruction efforts" in the most minimal, finger-lifting fashion. In the coming year's budget, Bush is requesting no additional money for Iraqi reconstruction, even though more than one-third of the $18 billion already allocated for that purpose remains unspent, got lost in the cracks of corruption and waste, or had to be diverted to security. An official U.S. audit, issued last week, concludes that, among other shortfalls, over half of water-sanitation projects and a third of electrical plants will be left unfinished. The Iraqis lack the management or resources to pick up the slack themselves.
Instead of openly confronting these unpleasant realities, as he will have to do at some point soon, Bush tried to reframe the debate, warning several times that we cannot "surrender to evil" or "retreat from our duties" or embrace "the false comfort of isolationism." To which one can only respond: What? Who, in any mainstream party or movement or school of thought in this country, is proposing anything remotely like isolationism? Clearly Bush was implying (though never stating explicitly, keeping the charge deniable) that the Democrats want to go this route, that withdrawing from Iraq is the same as withdrawing from the world.
This is a standard Rovian ploy: presenting the world in the starkest terms—good vs. evil, responsible engagement vs. irresponsible complacency—with Bush spearheading the former and his opponents (by dint of the fact that they are opponents) aligned with the latter. Does Bush believe this vision? Or is he just spinning in an attempt to reverse his tumbling ratings? And which theory is more disconcerting?
Reality-spinning can go only so far, though. It can't disguise or refigure the year's most jolting political earthquake: the victory of Hamas—the militant Islamic party that openly advocates terror and the destruction of Israel—in the Palestinian parliamentary elections. Bush didn't ignore this event entirely—he declared, to stormy applause, that Hamas must recognize Israel and disarm—but he did sidestep its staggering implications. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had pushed for these elections, against the advice not only of Israelis but of the relatively moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. Their push was in keeping with Bush's flowery rhetoric, ever since his second term began, about the unstoppable force of freedom and democracy. Elections in Palestine, he explained, were crucial; they would ignite a flame that could spread across the Middle East. Well, yes, they might just do that—but it's not the sort of firestorm that Bush and Rice had in mind.
The president said, as a veiled response to this outcome, "Elections are vital, but they are only the beginning." This formulation of the problem ignores one basic critique of Bush's exuberant rhetoric: that, in many societies long under authoritarian rule, elections shouldn't be "the beginning"; they should come more toward the middle of an evolution toward democracy. As Bush himself said in the speech, "Raising up a democracy requires the rule of law and protection of minorities and strong, accountable institutions that last longer than a single vote." Elections alone can't create these institutions; where religious fundamentalists represent the only organized alternative to a corrupt authority, elections can move a country in the opposite direction.
It's too early by far to gauge the long-term effects of Hamas' coming to power. By any measure, though, Bush's view of the world—that freedom is on the march, liberty is a universal desire, and democracy an unambiguous force for peace and security—took a huge hammering from this election. Yet there he stood at the podium last night, contented and confident, as if his imploded north star were still sparkling in the sky.